This article is part of a series on advice for freelance artists.
- How to Be Skilled Enough To Get A Job ←
- Choosing a Career Path as an Artist
- It’s Who You Know
- Time and Project Management
- Being Discoverable Online
- Active Marketing
- How To Make Money
- The Most Important Thing
Be Good at What You Do
This seems obvious, but way too many aspiring artists miss this step. You need to be good at what you do. A lot of artists who want to make money end up marketing themselves too early. They will spend a lot of time marketing themselves before they are good enough to get the work.
If you want a freelance career, the first thing you need to do is be good enough at your craft. Now, that statement demands a lot of nuance. You don’t want to enter an endless loop of educating yourself because you are afraid that you are not good enough yet.
I want to stress the phrase “good enough.” Don’t fall into the trap of over-educating yourself and not actually working. You learn faster by doing, and you’d be surprised at how far beginner and intermediate skills can take you when it comes to being a freelancer. People will always need artistic work done, no matter how minor it is. It might not be glamorous work (e.g., tidying up someone’s PowerPoint presentation), but it will be paid artistic work. As time goes on and your skills improve, you’ll be able to take on more prestigious work.
Don’t turn down a job because you don’t think you are 100% good enough. I was only 80-90% qualified for every job I got. I learned the extra 10-20% on the job.
Delay Marketing Until You Are Ready
Postponing your marketing efforts is a good strategy if you don’t have a lot of artistic skill yet. It means you are spending your time on the activities that will yield the most long-term benefits. If you market yourself before you are employable, the time spent marketing is not efficient.
Passive Marketing is Okay
Even though education and practice should be your primary goal as a beginning artist, you may engage in some activities that would count as marketing. If you want work experience by joining community projects or working with other creatives, you’ll have to do some networking and sharing your artwork to do that. Those are technically marketing activities. However, don’t make active marketing a massive focus of your time. While you are pre-employable, marketing should be a passive activity, something that is the byproduct of your everyday activities to help you grow as a creative.
You may not be actively engaging in marketing, but you definitely should be networking early. Talk to be people, be part of communities, get help, and teach others. Yes, even as a newbie, teach what you know to your fellow creatives. All these things should be done at every stage of your development. The payoffs of networking take years to come to fruition, so you should start years in advance. Start networking today. (We’ll talk more about networking later in this series in the “It’s Who You Know” article.)
So don’t jump on the marketing train until your skills are at a professional level. Slow down. Do it right. Spend your valuable early years getting good at what you do. Spend the time in active marketing when it is actually beneficial to do so.
Okay, now onto the big question.
How Do I Know When I’m Employable and Can Start Actively Marketing?
You ask people.
Ask people who are in the industry if you are ready. Then ask what you need to improve so you can focus your education on where you are lacking. Ask what you are doing right, so you don’t spend time over-educating yourself on topics that you are already good enough at.
As I said in the “Good Enough” section, you’d be surprised how little skill you need to get paid work. That’s one reason why networking is essential. Someone may need some artwork done that is well below the expectations of a large business or studio. That type of work provides valuable experience working with smaller clients and getting paid in low-stakes situations.
Becoming a freelancer can take a very long time, especially if you are self-taught. Expect it to take years.
To give you some perspective, I started doing websites and graphics for a year or two as a hobbyist before I started taking graphic design classes in college. I was able to start getting freelance work in my 3rd year of college.
It is not uncommon for people who have graduated college to continue their education for another year or two to become employable. So keep that in mind when you are trying to determine a timeline on when you can expect to start making good money off your craft.
Until you reach that point, focus on learning. That will give you the most significant return on investment. Participate in projects with your friends and the community. Those associations might lead to paid work before you are considered “employable” by industry standards. Strong careers grow out of that kind of work. Mine certainly did. I was getting paid work a couple of years before I was considered “employable” by the design industry.
So focus on learning, not on marketing. That is until people in the industry tell you otherwise.
Network. Tell people what you do. Those people may come to you for simple art-related jobs. Years of that kind of slow incremental growth can flourish into a lucrative freelance business. Be patient. Don’t rush. Do it right.
Qualifications and Job Experience
I know these articles are meant for people who want to freelance, but there’s a good chance you’ll be seeking full-time employment as well. Nowadays, much of the freelance gigs you see posted online are formatted just like a full-time job opening.
There’s a chicken and egg problem with job experience. “5 years experience.” How can you get experience if you can’t get a job to get experience? I tell artists that “years of experience” is a loose term. Personal projects count as experience. Working on projects with friends counts as experience. Make all of that count when you are asked about your years of experience.
What if the job posting explicitly says “employment experience,” making it clear that only paid experience will count? To cover that scenario, you can file a DBA (doing business as) so that you can do business using a name that is not your own. Instead of a DBA, you can form an LLC. (Note that LLCs can have DBA’s as well. Squirrel Logic, for example, has two DBAs so that we can do business using multiple names). Be careful because states like California make you pay a minimum $800 tax every year if you are an LLC, which is why I stayed as a sole proprietor while I lived in California. So be sure to check your local laws. In many places, the only fee is renewing your LLC with the state, and your business license with the city annually. This year my LLC renewal fees were $70 and only took me 30 minutes. Once you have an LLC you can put on your resume your company name and state that you have been an artist/designer/developer for that company since the date that the LLC was formed. If they ask for specifics in the interview, tell them the truth that you formed the company. At the very least, this strategy of filling your resume with time at a company you created will get you past the resume review phase and into an interview.
In reality, “years of experience” is a horrible metric of skill. Someone with one year of experience can out-perform someone with ten years. If you don’t have enough years of experience but are still qualified to do the work, apply anyway. (Again, make all those years of learning count towards your years of experience.) Your portfolio is what matters. No one has ever probed me about my years of experience in a job interview.
What if you don’t have all the qualifications? Apply anyway. Just make sure you are at least 90% qualified for the job. Your portfolio is what communicates if you have the qualifications or not.
These hard requirements about years of experience and qualifications are another reason why it is important to bypass the job hunting process entirely and network so that you can find job opportunities without applying through job postings.
Make Sure Your Resume Matches The Job Posting
I hate that things have gone this way, but most incoming job applications are processed automatically by a computer. The software finds resumes that best match the resume of an imaginary employee that the company wants to hire. Update your resume for each job you apply for. Make sure your resume matches the job listing as closely as possible without being obvious or incorrect. That way, your resume should go through the automated selection process so a human can see it. It will also make it seem like you will be the perfect fit for the job.
What will that human being making the hiring decisions care about? Your portfolio. A cover letter can be very important as well. Your cover letter communicates your interest in the company you want to work for and how you have provided measurable benefits in places you’ve worked in the past.
What to Learn
The world values skills that are rare and valuable. Assume that these will not come naturally.
Communication and Teamwork
Work in groups and teams as much as you can. Make things with people. Collaborate. Get good at speaking. Interpersonal skills are becoming rarer nowadays, and the best-paying jobs require them.
Learn Through Teaching
Become a teacher. Teach what you know, even if you don’t know very much. Not only does teaching help you research topics more deeply, but it also proves that you know that subject. I believe that teaching is how you truly understand a topic.
If you can record your teaching sessions, post them online. If you are a writer instead of a presenter, copy and paste your notes as a blog post. You’ve already created the content for your educational purposes, go ahead and post it. Passive marketing!
My career was built on teaching workshops in college. Was I great at the topics I taught? No, but I was good enough to teach it. I was good enough that some of my fellow students mistook me for college faculty. I can attribute most of my career, networking, and opportunities to contacts I made teaching those workshops. People assume—rightfully or otherwise—that if you are teaching something, you are somehow an export. Use that to your advantage.
In addition to learning through teaching, you can also learn through mentoring other people in your field. Despite what other people say, you can be a mentor without being an expert. You can mentor on Day 1. There are other people at your same level that you can mentor.
Since you are closer to the pain and the information you are learning, you’ll be better equipped to mentor people who are going through the same thing. Experts are great a mentoring you on the big picture and have a lot more experience to share. However, it’s been years or even decades since they’ve gone through what you have gone through. So some of their advice can be out-of-touch.
Finding a mentor is important too. There’s a great article/podcast on NPR’s Life Kit about how a good mentor can change your career.
Keep a Journal
An excellent way to stay close to the pain of being a beginner long after you have become an expert is to keep a good journal about your struggles, “Aha!” moments, and advice you would give to people going through the same thing. With those experiences recorded, you’ll be a much more effective mentor and educator in the future. Writing things done also makes memory recall better.
I hate to say it, but the fundamentals of art are crucial. You need to learn those first.
Why do I hate saying that? Because saying “go back to the fundamentals” is a true statement that you’ll hear over and over again, and yet it is also an extremely unhelpful statement. A lot of young artists don’t know what “go back to the fundamentals” mean. It’s even annoying to hear it as a seasoned artist who knows what the fundamentals are.
“Go back to the fundamentals,” is a blanket statement that is correct. But unless someone receives specific feedback on issues with their artwork, that advice does little good.
The fundamentals of art and design is an enormously large topic, even though it generally refers to the basics: the principles and elements of design, composition, the ability to see angle and proportion, the ability to draw those things accurately, and understanding the physics of lighting. To do all of those things correctly, you have to understand a lot about how the world works.
The fundamentals are taught in the best art schools and college programs but are not taught very well online. If you are self-taught, the fundamentals are very difficult to cultivate. Most blog posts, YouTube videos, and online courses either don’t cover it, or they try to cram years worth of college-level fundamental skills into just a few hours.
That sucks. It is a huge problem with online art education right now.
The lack of such an online curriculum is such a big issue that Squirrel Logic has made it our biggest internal project.
I hate saying, “learn the fundamentals,” because I can’t provide a good enough answer right now. The answer is an entire curriculum that is in development.
As soon as Squirrel Logic has the answer to that question, this article will be updated to reflect that. Until then, subscribe to the Twitter feed, and take good art classes that actually teach those fundamental skills. Learn to draw from life. Learn to paint from life. You’ll pick up a lot of foundational skills that way.
Why Are the Fundamentals Important?
Aside from it being the basis of all visual design, it’s important because the market is constantly evolving. Trends, software, and jobs change all the time. But there are things that never change. If you put your time and effort into learning the things that never change, you’ll have a better foundation to pivot your career when it becomes necessary or advantageous to stay employed.
Learn Some Graphic Design
As an illustrator, I recommend learning a little bit of graphic design. The principles and elements of design are universal, even though each discipline of art has different names for those concepts. My mind was blown when I found out that graphic design and character design share the same rules of appeal. It’s all connected. Everything applies.
I’ve found that graphic design curricula generally teach the principles and elements of design better than art classes do. You know you’ve found a good graphic design course if they start you with pencil and paper first. Graphic design is a hand-drawn skill. A computer is a tool. If a graphic design curriculum starts you out on the Adobe software first, it’s the wrong curriculum.
Graphic design is also a helpful skill because so much of the modern world around us is graphic design. It’s everywhere. If you create a modern-looking world with signage, products, apparel, and user interfaces, you’ll want to learn some graphic design to make the world believable.
In addition, graphic designers make more money than illustrators do on average, so it would be good to be versatile and be able to pivot careers.
As an aside, illustrators make the best graphic designers. If you can create artwork from scratch, you won’t have to rely on stock images. Illustrators make stronger logos and icons.
Other good resources for illustrators
When it comes to character design, Stephen Silver’s book The Silver Way is the best book on character design right now. It’s a workbook. It assumes you have the fundamentals down. But there’s some great info in that book that is lacking everywhere else.
Ready for the next topic? Here’s the list of articles in this series: